I excitedly picked up the John Carter Blu-ray combo pack last week, popped it into my player, and then fell asleep about 40 minutes into the film. Suddenly, a week went by and I realized I didn’t really have the urge to finish the film. Not a good sign. But, you know, I owed it to myself, and to the creative team (who I like!), to finish the film and then develop an opinion.
John Carter, based on the novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs and directed by Wall-E’s Andrew Stanton, is a befuddling work. It’s ambitious, chock full of characters, special effects, and a fairly dense plot, but in so many ways it just doesn’t work. The civil war between Helium and Zodanga is convoluted right from the first scene; both forces wear nearly the same uniforms, save a batch of blue or red here and there to distinguish them. Carter’s motivations and acceptance of his status on Mars seems all too convenient. Odd edits, especially during Dejah’s first “damsel in distress” moment (I mean, really, how many times did Carter need to catch her while falling in this movie?), make following the action difficult. The acting, especially from lead Taylor Kitsch, is adequate but far from the kind of engaging you need to launch the kind of franchise Disney was looking for here.
Unfortunately, the biggest sin against the film is its lack of emotion, which is surprising, given Stanton’s (not to mention his fellow screenwriters, who include Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon) pedigree. The romance between Carter and Dejah just sort of happens, since it’s supposed to, and the objectives for other characters, like Dominic West’s Sab Than or William Defoe’s Tars Tarkus, are barely addressed. If you were unfamiliar with Burrough’s stories, as I was, you probably aren’t going to find yourself invested in these characters.
I really wanted to like this movie. I disregarded a lot of the negative buzz, which had more to do with the film’s financial failures than its creative ones. I suppose that’s why, once I finally got around to finishing it, I was ultimately disappointed. It’s clear that John Carter had a lot of ambition and there are elements to like, like the Tharks, Dejah, and some of the less cumbersome mythology, but the film is weighed down by its many flaws.